FAIRBANKS - Most Alaskans who have heard of Soapy Smith only know that he briefly controlled crime in Skagway and paid for it with his life. Not many people realize that his tenure in the far north was merely the capstone on a long and largely successful career of criminality spanning the waning days of America’s frontier expansion.
If you’re interested in the details of Soapy’s illustrious life — and I do mean details; some 600 pages worth — pick up a copy of “Alias Soapy Smith” by the outlaw’s great-grandson, Jeff Smith.
One gathers from the introduction that the descendants of Skagway’s most famous citizen are fairly obsessed with their forefather. The family holds an extensive collection of materials concerning his life, and Smith mentions research that several of his relatives have done on the man. The author has clearly been working on this book for many years, and the end product will probably stand as the most comprehensive account ever written of Soapy’s life.
Jefferson Randolph Smith II was born into a prominent Georgia family on the eve of the Civil War. Like many wealthy Southerners, his family’s fortunes fell in the aftermath of the conflict.
His mother died and his father took to drink and relocated the clan to Texas.
There the young Smith was largely left to his own devices, and it wasn’t long before the bright youngster discovered that it was easier to separate people from their hard-earned money than to go out and actually work for it.
Soapy learned card tricks and shell games as means of cheating people, and he gained his famous moniker by a con he developed while selling soap on street corners. Soapy would take one unit out of a bucket of soap bars, slide a large denomination bill under its wrapper, then toss it back in the bin, stir the soap, and auction off opportunities for bystanders to reach into the bucket and attempt to grab the monetarily enhanced bar.
Soapy never wanted for people willing to pay $5 or even $10 for the chance — no small amount in the 1880s — but he never had to pay up because, through sleight-of-hand, he’d remove the bill before gamblers started taking their pick.
It was a good act, and Soapy traveled the West with it, skipping out of each new town before he was caught. But he was far too driven to limit himself to small time games like this.
For much of the 1880s he had drifted in and out of the newly established city of Denver, and by the turn of the decade he’d settled there permanently.
Much of the book takes place in that growing Colorado metropolis where Soapy, through guile and careful manipulations, managed to corner the criminal underground.
For several years he ran numerous gambling establishments and saloons, and built up a gang that preyed on newcomers and travelers, bilking them out of countless thousands of dollars.
Soapy got away with his rackets because he knew how to work the system to his advantage. He wrangled himself into a position of influence within the state’s Republican Party. He also exercised virtual control over the city’s government and police force. He had an agreement with the city fathers to target visitors rather than residents, keeping locals off his back.
And he gained favor by generously donating to churches, the poor, and other worthy causes.
Soapy’s years in Denver were lucrative, but he was not without enemies. One of the local newspapers, the Rocky Mountain News, was forever attacking him and his gang. But the real trouble came when the state elected a Populist governor who made it his goal to clean up Denver and rid it of what had come to be called the Soap Gang.
Even without this opposition, Soapy was digging himself a deep hole.
While he wasn’t a violent man by nature, the life of crime that he had pursued drove him in that direction, and it was only a matter of time until he was involved in a couple of shootings.
These along with all his other problems sent him on the lam.
After a couple of years drifting as far as New Orleans, Mexico and Seattle, Soapy set his eyes on Alaska. The circumstances were perfect: The gold rush was bringing thousands of potential victims into the remote locality, and the territory was far enough from the West — where he was now a household name — that he could potentially escape his reputation.
In fact, his name followed him north, but this didn’t stop him from setting up shop in Skagway. In no time he was operating a saloon and keeping his gang busy conning the steady stream of prospectors funneling though town on their way to the Klondike. He was also running the town, and this was his downfall; there was another faction in Skagway that wanted him gone, and they ultimately got their way when one misstep on Soapy’s part resulted in bullet through his heart.
Smith has labored to tell as much of Soapy’s story he can in clear and highly readable prose. He also quotes at length from an abundance of primary sources, offering readers extensive insight into life in frontier America. This is great for those with a deep fascination with the history of the West, but casual readers will probably — for the same reasons — find the book far too long.
If you’re interested in the full Soapy, however, this is the place to look. He was a complex man, and this lengthy and exhaustively researched book brings him and his times very much back to life.
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.
Alias Soapy Smith
by Jeff Smith
664 pages including pictures